Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Sure, it's sexy, but does it work?

The Economist has an interesting article comparing the cost per ton of various forms of CO2 abatement. A negative cost per ton means that the abatement saves money and reduces emissions at the same time: better insulation, more efficient light bulbs, and fuel efficient cars all fall into this category. A positive cost per ton means that the abatement reduces emissions, but also costs money: alternative energy sources and planting trees, for instance.

Unfortunately, the positive cost methods get most of the media attention, government investment, and so forth, even as they fight an uphill battle because they are, in fact, more expensive. The negative cost methods are, for the most part, low-tech and boring. Who cares about light bulbs? Let's build wind farms! Except the light bulbs will pay for themselves many times over before the wind farm gets through its environmental impact review.

(Link by way of DD's Eco Notes.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Welcome to the gray market

One of the biggest advantages any brand has is the perception of quality. Brand owners spend huge amounts of money to convince consumers that their products are made better, designed better, and backed by a better customer service organization than lower priced, generically branded competition.

That's why the reports of quality issues associated with Chinese manufacturers should horrify any brand owner. One distributor spiked wheat gluten with plastic to increase the measured protein level, and killed who knows how many cats. Another replaced glycerin sweetener with diethylene glycol, also known as antifreeze. And now it turns out that the gum strip that helps prevent tread separation was simply left out of imported tires. All of these problems have in common a willingness to cut dangerous corners in order to cut costs, precisely the attitude that brand owners imply is rampant in off-brand products, and the attitude that consumer protection laws were written to punish.

The hard lesson is that government is not going to be much help. The US government has no jurisdiction. Foreign governments have no interest in slowing the flood of US capital, and often have inadequate consumer protection laws anyway. If you care about the quality of the products that carry your brand, you're going to have to monitor that quality yourself. Otherwise, you're only an unethical supplier on the other side of the world away from watching all your hard-earned brand equity go down the drain.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Things that make you go hmmmm

Quasicrystals are one of those topics that I've always been intrigued by, but never had a chance to really investigate. (Quasicrystals are materials with aperiodic ordering: x-ray diffraction shows that they have internal symmetry, but they lack the translational symmetry that true crystals have.) Now they've given me a reason to find the local engineering library: work to be published in the Journal of the American Mathematical Society shows that the standard equations used to calculate electrical conductivity don't work for quasicrystals. The very idea makes my head hurt if I think about it too much. Clearly one for the research file.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Gutenberg 2.0 still in beta

I'm not the only one to notice the Sony Reader. The Weekly Standard has a review. The author concludes what I suspected: selections and features are limited, but the device is a step in the right direction.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

More than spelling your name right

I suspect a lot of my readers know this already, but here's a good short guide to talking to the press, written from the interviewee's point of view.

The only thing I would add: if you don't have anything to say, don't say anything. If you're initiating the conversation, make sure what you have to say is really newsworthy, and be prepared to explain why. If I'm requesting an interview, make sure you're prepared to have a substantive conversation about the topic. A content-free or off-topic interview doesn't do either of us any good.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Time to get a life

Sometimes, privacy advocates raise serious issues that should worry all of us. What happens, say, when your bank records, medical records, and credit card purchase records are all accessible through giant databases? What happens when poor security at one retailer puts millions of people at risk for identity theft?

And sometimes, you have to wonder why they don't spend all that energy on world hunger or something. The latest non-issue concerns Google Street View, which shows street level photos of a particular address. For instance, one woman found an image of her cat sitting in her apartment window. Panic ensued.

Never mind that the courts have repeatedly held that there is no expectation of privacy on a public street. Google has a larger audience, but newspapers, law enforcement, and your neighbors have always been free to watch and take pictures from outside your property lines. If you don't want people or their cameras to see in your windows, close the curtains or plant a hedge.

(Full disclosure: My husband works for Google, though not on this project. It would be a silly non-issue even if he didn't, though.)